Hammer orchids have a single thumbnail-sized, flat, heart-shaped, fleshy, ground-hugging leaf and a long, thin, wiry stem. The stem bears a leaf-like bract below half way and a single flower at its summit. The flower is highly modified in that the labellum resembles a female thynnid wasp in shape and colour and which produces a scent that mimicks a pheromone produced by the female. There is a single (male) stamen bearing two pollinia close to the single (female) stigma. After fertilisation, the ovary develops into a non-fleshy capsule containing up to 500 seeds.
Many orchid species have structures, or produce scents that mimic female insects and are attractive to males. Hammer orchids are unique in that they are pollinated by a species of male thynnid wasp (Superfamily Vespoidea, Family Thynnidae). Thynnid wasps are unique in that the females are flightless. When male wasps emerge from the ground, they search for females. When the flightless female wasps emerge, they climb a blade of grass, rub their legs together, release a pheromone and wait for males. When a male detects the pheromone, it flies in a zig-zag pattern upwind until the female is located. The male grasps the female and flies away with her to a food source. Copulation occurs in flight and the male feeds his mate through his abdomen. She is then left to return to the ground, lay her eggs in beetle larvae and die.
The orchid produces a chemical that mimics the pheromone produced by the female wasp and is strongly attractive to male thynnid wasps. (One researcher had male wasps follow his car, fly through the open windows and locate orchids on the floor of the car.) When a male is attracted by the pheromone-like scent released by the orchid and by its shape, it tries to fly away with the labellum, making the stem holding it move backwards. This in turn brings the male wasp's thorax in contact with the sticky pollen packet. The male wasp tires of trying to remove the labellum and flies off. In order for the hammer orchid to be successfully pollinated, the male wasp must visit another individual orchid, where it goes through the same procedure. This time the pollen is deposited on the stigma, and so that plant has been pollinated.
Usually each species of orchid is pollinated by a specific species of wasp, but there are exceptions. One hammer orchid species shares a pollinator with other kinds of orchid and one population of Drakaea concolor attracts a rare and poorly known wasp whilst another also attracts a second, far more common species.
The taxonomy of many orchid genera is debated and there have been many changes to genera such as Caladenia. Hammer orchids, however are unique, are easily distinguished from other genera and there have been few changes to the limits of the genus since they were first described. However, there has been confusion and disagreement about classification within the genus. The latest review was carried out by Stephen Hopper and Andrew Brown in 2007.